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4 Social Media Strategies to Build Patient Loyalty

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   March 08, 2012

In order to build relationships and truly connect with members of your community through social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, hospitals are learning that it takes more than simply pushing out a weekly bit of health advice.

Social media can be a great tool for patient education and brand messaging. But to really build loyalty—and possibly even grow market share—hospitals need to engage consumers in two-way conversations. Photographs, contests, and links to interesting stories can be a great way to get those conversations started.

St. Peter's Hospital in Helena, MT, is a relative newcomer to social media, having just launched its Facebook page in April 2011. "At first, we were using the page mainly to promote community events. We added monthly health tips and usual hospital news, but struggled to obtain friends," says Peggy Stebbins, director of public relations and marketing. After roughly nine months, the 123-bed hospital had only about 80 friends—many of whom were employees.

"The only increase in activity we saw was when we posted photos of a special women's event we held featuring Patty Duke," says Stebbins. So St. Peter's decided to join the growing number of hospitals conducting cute baby contests online.

The nonprofit hospital launched its own contest with media coverage of the first baby of the new year. And just like that, St. Peter's number of Facebook friends increased to 1,153—it gained more than 1,000 friends from the contest.

"Because of the success of the baby contest, we decided to continue with contests to increase activity," says Stebbins. "Our hospital holds numerous successful community events, and Go Red for Women was the next one scheduled. With our sponsorship partner, we devised the best red outfit photo contest."

St. Peter's wanted not only to attract more friends but also to give more women a reason to attend the event, says Stebbins. While the red outfit contest only generated about 10 new friends, St. Peter's did receive 18 photo submissions, and 96 people voted for their favorite red outfit. The number of attendees remained in line with the "Go Red for Women" event held in the previous year.

Michelle Kustra, marketing coordinator at Sherman Health, a 255-bed hospital in Elgin, IL, admits that, like St. Peter's, her organization started out simply posting information on social media sites as well. However, for the past few years, Sherman Health's social media goal has been to start discussions with the community.

Kustra says that the Illinois hospital uses all the tools at its disposal—including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and e-blasts. "We are no longer talking to the community, but talking with them and connecting to them and helping [the community] to connect with us on a personal level," Kustra says. Sherman Health has focused on photo submissions to help promote this interaction. It is also looking into sharing patient stories.

Healthcare organizations whose strategy is to simply post healthcare information are missing out on the true essence of what social media is all about—having "two-way communication and getting people to connect with you interactively," says Kustra.

1. Incorporate humor
Many healthcare issues are life- or-death topics that have a very serious tone or message. When it comes to social media, however, organizations should splice in some health-related topics that focus on the lighter side of healthcare. Otherwise, people may stop reading your posts.

When Sherman Health started using humor, its numbers began to climb, says Kustra. "We are up to 5,000 Twitter followers and a couple of thousand Facebook fans."

It's important to have your social media presence mimic the ups and downs of your patients' lives— meaning you should cover both serious events and fun events, says Charles Falls, president and owner of DC Interactive Group, the agency Sherman Health has partnered with for social media. "We don't want to cross lines, so we try to keep fun events that everyone would find fun and interesting. We are not looking for controversy," he says.

One of Sherman Health's successful forays in using humor to disseminate health information was its Movember mustache contest that took place in November 2011. "It was men's health month, so we were trying to think of creative ways to engage the community and remind them that there are a lot of men's health issues out there, and the big one is prostate cancer," says Kustra.

Sherman Health's marketing team meets with DC Interactive Group on a monthly basis to develop a social media plan for the next one to two months. During its brainstorming session, the idea of tying a men's health campaign to Movember, a global initiative to raise awareness and funds for men's health issues, was formed.

In addition to asking people to send in mustache photos, the hospital had blog posts on famous mustaches over the years, ranging from celebrities all the way to Ned Flanders from the television series The Simpsons. "We had to talk about what we were doing, but also had to talk about the things that were interesting to people to draw them in and connect them back to the contest," explains Falls. The blog posts also included information on the importance of having prostate screenings and eating healthy.

The mustache contest far exceeded Sherman Health's goals of 15 photo submissions and 1,500 unique page views. The hospital received more than 40 submissions and had more than 2,500 unique views for its Movember-related posts. In addition, the mustache contest also engaged employees at Sherman Health, many of whom were telling their family and friends about it, says Kustra. "It was a really fun experience all around."

2. Integrate your social media channels
For any contest or marketing campaign using social media, organizations should include as many channels as possible, says Falls. For Movember, Sherman Health used Facebook applications to run the contest, but its blog helped connect all of the social media channels. For example, its Twitter posts would drive people back to the blog where they could connect to Facebook and look at photos, he explains.

The blog allowed people to read about the contest without having to get onto Facebook and like the page. "While we like having ‘likes,' we are trying to build up our e-lists by having people sign up for e-mail communication so we can directly communicate with people," Falls says.

3. Keep the budget low
Sherman Health had a $500 budget for its Movember contest, and it plans to stick to that same budget for future contests, says Kustra. "Since we already have a lot of [blog] pages built and e-blasts in place, we spent that money mostly on prizes." For Movember, the grand prize was Blackhawks hockey tickets that were donated, the second- place prize was a Kindle Fire, and the third-place prize was a Norelco™ razor system.

Stebbins agrees these types of contests don't need large marketing budgets. The most St. Peter's has paid for a social media campaign is $350 for a Facebook ad for its women's health event featuring Patty Duke. The prize for St. Peter's baby photo contest was an overnight hotel stay, lunch, and dinner, a total value of about $200.

Based on her experience with that contest, Stebbins cautions hospitals about offering too big a prize. "People were amazingly competitive," she says. "One of the mothers had a relative who specialized in social media and sent the contest to one million friends. Obviously, this baby won with over 3,000 votes, the next nearest being about 200 votes."

Unfortunately, this activity resulted in people writing negative comments accusing the contest of being rigged—and some people wrote mean comments about the other babies, Stebbins explains. "We never anticipated this activity, and our webmaster spent nearly two days monitoring and deleting the nasty comments. We met our goal of increasing friends, but I'm not sure we'll keep them."

Still, Stebbins would do another baby photo contest, but with a more modest prize, she says, adding that she would probably use third-party software to administer the contest and offer a prize tailored to a more mature audience, such as a dinner with wine (which would require entrants to be at least 21 years old).

4. Tie Social Media to Service Lines
Ideally you want to connect social media campaigns to something that you are trying to promote, says Falls. "That ties [the campaign] into the business purpose for doing it and makes it easier for the C-suite to understand that there is a goal here, that you can identify it and see if you are meeting it."

Kustra says that based on the success of Movember, the hospital is trying to come up with an event each month that relates to a healthcare topic. For example, for February, it is doing a "What Do You Heart?" contest—where people can submit a photo of what they love, such as spending time with family, reading a book, or a favorite activity.

At presstime, it had a good mix of community members and employees submitting photos, Kustra says, adding that within five minutes of posting the contest, it had three submissions.

Stebbins says the "Go Red for Women" event and Facebook contest were part of St. Peter's overall strategy to promote its cardiologists, cardiology clinic, and services. "We also created a Helena HeartBeat publication with health and wellness education featuring our providers and a personal health tracker," she says. St. Peter's will probably do about six contests during the year, all of which will align with its community events, Stebbins says. "Most of our future endeavors will be targeted at women ages 25 plus, those who make the healthcare decisions for their families," she adds.

Falls advises healthcare organizations that are new to social media or looking to improve their consumer engagement to pay attention to what other people are doing. "Don't be afraid of putting together a contest and not having it be all you'd hope it would be," he says. "The important thing is to be out there."


Carrie Vaughan is a senior editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

Follow Carrie Vaughan on Twitter.

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